Politics & Government

Wrecking ball or breath of fresh air? How Dick Harpootlian is shaking up the State House

First-term senator Dick Harpootlian brings passion to post

Dick Harpootlian
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Dick Harpootlian

The annual meeting of the Richland County Legislative Delegation is rife with confusion.

It’s December 2018, time for local lawmakers to review candidates for more than a dozen boards that oversee everything from the county’s parks to its elections. But Richland County legislators complain they received the candidates’ applications just days ago, and some question aloud whether certain positions were opened and advertised fairly.

Amid the hubbub, state Rep. Chris Hart, D-Richland, proposes to go into executive session to talk things over, a regular tactic among Richland County officials. That’s when the delegation’s newest member takes over.

Fresh off a special election victory in November, Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian questions Hart: Why is it necessary to take a public meeting behind closed doors? The former prosecutor announces Hart must state a legally justifiable reason, or he could face criminal penalties under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“F.O.I.,” Harpootlian, also a former investigative reporter, says sternly. “It’s a crime.”

Hart meekly relents, and Harpootlian’s highly anticipated tenure as a state senator has begun in earnest.

It’s a small victory, but the first of several triumphs over the next six months that ensure the acerbic, two-time state Democratic Party chairman lives up to the hype that preceded his arrival to the S.C. Legislature.

Freshman lawmakers typically keep a low profile during their first term at the State House, preferring to watch and learn. But in his first legislative session, Harpootlian got the county elections board fired, torpedoed a former state lawmaker’s attempt to land a job as a state agency director and took on an NFL team’s effort to win $115 million in tax discounts from the state.

He impressed senators who expected a grenade-throwing partisan and found him to be a shrewd pragmatist. His assaults on county boards and bars in Five Points endeared himself to potential 2020 voters in his district but rankled some of his colleagues on the Richland delegation.

Observers say Harpootlian’s first-year splash is a case study in what can happen when a politician acts upon his convictions, with little concern for self-preservation. Having nothing to fear is part of his power.

Harpootlian’s wealth and decision to term-limit himself to 2024 mean he has little to gain from his title as a senator and little to lose from rocking the boat — traits that free him to be a “breath of fresh air” in the Senate, in the words of three lawmakers interviewed separately for this story.

“He is wise as an owl and less predictable than a jersey bull,” Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, tweeted after this year’s legislative session ended. “He thinks he can perform heart surgery with a sledge hammer and a whistle. You know he can’t but it’s fun to watch.”

‘The job was not getting done’

It is a recent Wednesday afternoon, and Harpootlian, seated behind his desk in his downtown Columbia law firm, is quite pleased with himself.

Last fall, he ran a populist campaign centered on rooting out corruption and making a dysfunctional government work better for his constituents. He says his six months as a senator have proven to him that government is “profoundly broken.” But he thinks his first swing at the problem left a dent.

In February, he attended a Richland County Elections Commission meeting and called out one of its members, Shirley Mack, for failing to take half of the training classes legally required for her job. His questions sparked a chaotic exchange that — coupled with the agency’s failure to count 1,000 votes in the November midterms — led GOP Gov. Henry McMaster to fire the entire board the next day.

A week later, Harpootlian focused his crosshairs at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport’s board, whose members are appointed by local lawmakers. He called for the board to be removed from office for misspending money on luxury suites at University of South Carolina sporting events and questioned the perks the board offers — such as free airport parking — to the legislators who appoint them.

Both moves irked some of his fellow Richland County lawmakers, who said Harpootlian’s attacks were erroneous and disrespectful to the board members. State Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, sought an apology for Mack, who he said was raising valid points about the problems at the agency. Harpootlian refused.

State Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, also approached Harpootlian about the way he confronted the board. Harpootlian heard him out, then replied that if the board members’ IQs had been higher than their waist sizes, the commission wouldn’t have needed his intervention.

Later, back in his Laurel Street law office, Harpootlian confirmed the exchange occurred but added he was being facetious.

“Blowing up the election commission is the best thing I’ve done for the people of Richland County since I was elected senator,” said the man who was described as “a human IED (improvised explosive device)” in “Game Change,” a book about the 2008 presidential election. “The job was not getting done.”

Scott said he wasn’t offended. “Shirley Mack has a master’s degree. You know how Dick is.”

Unabashed

In March, Harpootlian was crucial in sinking former state Rep. Mike Pitts’ nomination to become director of the state Conservation Bank, which funds land conservation.

Most agency nominations receive the Senate’s confirmation without a hitch. But Harpootlian and state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, questioned Pitts in hearings about his support for keeping the Confederate flag on State House grounds, among other controversial proposals.

Pitts’ nomination ultimately was doomed after Harpootlian and staffers at his law firm — who doubled as his high-powered Senate staff this year — found evidence Pitts had taken votes in the House that positioned him for the job upon retirement. Pitts withdrew after senators made it clear that even the appearance of self-dealing was disqualifying.

“Some people complained that I was too hard on him,” Harpootlian said. “Some people complained that the decorum of the Senate doesn’t allow for that kind of aggressive questioning. To them, I say I think that’s the job — getting to the truth — and the guy wasn’t telling the truth.”

McElveen was struck by Harpootlian’s zeal: “He’s unafraid. He’s unabashed. He’s fearless when he’s doing what he thinks is right.”

But Harpootlian’s biggest splash came when he blocked a vote, for two months, on a high-profile bill aimed at enticing the Carolina Panthers to move their operations to South Carolina with tax breaks. Harpootlian held the bill for ransom until the state Commerce Department released its secret projection of the project’s economic benefits. When it did, in a move that sent shockwaves through the Senate, he hired his own economist to run the numbers, then announced the economist had found the project’s benefits to be greatly exaggerated.

Harpootlian slammed the proposal — a top priority of state GOP leadership, including the governor — as a crony capitalist handout that will divert state money away from road and school improvements, but it passed over his objections.

“He was extremely thorough,” said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, adding Harpootlian re-energized the Senate this year with his enthusiasm and attention to detail.

But not everyone was happy with Harpootlian’s contribution.

Miffed at Harpootlian’s assaults on local boards, the Panthers deal and Five Points bars, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, complained to The State that Harpootlian is acting like a Tea Party Republican, even worse than his predecessor, moderate Republican Sen. John Courson.

“We got off on a bad step, and we continue to be on that step as he continues to destroy the retail environment in Columbia,” Rutherford said.

Harpootlian fired back in typical fashion: “Todd, you’ve been there 20 years. Tell me what you’ve done?”

Rutherford, Harpootlian continued, “opposes doing anything about the election commission. He opposes doing anything about the airport commission. He opposes any sort of scrutiny of any government function. I talk about transparency. He says that’s a Tea Party word. I’m disappointed in Todd. I think he’s got extraordinary potential but has not accomplished one single thing improving the quality of life in Richland County and his district.”

‘Don’t need your vote’

It’s the early 1990s, and Senate Education Committee chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, is not yet a senator. He’s a prosecutor in the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office, and a crime victim is angry that Hembree has decided not to take a suspect to trial. The man asks for the name and number of Hembree’s boss, and then hangs up.

Hembree rushes across the building to reach the office of his boss, then-5th Circuit Solicitor Dick Harpootlian, before the victim can call. Harpootlian is there, so Hembree explains the case and his reasoning just before Harpootlian’s phone rings.

Harpootlian hears the victim out, answering that he supports his assistant solicitor’s position. The man grows from frustrated to furious, telling Harpootlian he would never again have his vote.

“I don’t need your vote,” Harpootlian fired back. “I just need 50 percent plus one.”

The message — do the right thing, even when it’s the unpopular thing — stuck with Hembree, just as it stuck with Harpootlian as he was growing up during the Civil Rights era.

Back then, Harpootlian admired Albert Gore Sr., then former Democratic congressman from Tennessee who lost his seat in 1970 because he took liberal positions on civil rights and the Vietnam War as his district was turning red.

When Harpootlian met Gore Sr. in South Carolina ahead of the 1988 presidential primary, he asked him about his controversial vote for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination at the polls.

“He said it was an easy decision,” Harpootlian recalls. “That’s a role model. That’s a guy who said, ‘This is more important than me coming back.’”

Not wanting to get too settled in his role as a state senator, Harpootlian has never moved into his Senate office in the State House complex. He prefers to work out of his private law office, away from the parade of lobbyists.

He says he has never attended any of the many breakfasts, lunches or cocktail hours held for lawmakers by groups lobbying the General Assembly. Instead, he occasionally tweeted schedules of those events, adding in one January post: “I have not found a ham biscuit or liquor drink to have ever aided my understanding of a complicated issue.”

Harpootlian regularly brought his own meals to lunchtime meetings of the Senate Democratic Caucus, not wanting to be even indirectly beholden to the special interests that fill caucus coffers with donations.

Months after calling the General Assembly incompetent during the campaign, Harpootlian now believes many of his colleagues are bright, even if he says too many are shackled by a desire to be re-elected in perpetuity.

“Being a senator just ain’t that big a deal,” he says. “It’s just a name. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t do anything with it.”

Harpootlian is realistic about his position. He promises not to seek re-election in 2024 and says he can’t even get one of his own bills passed through the Legislature because of his lack of seniority. But he can still make an impact by scrutinizing spending, calling out misbehaving public officials and thwarting nominees.

“My time is short,” he says. “I’m not the 30-year-old guy or woman running for the Senate thinking that 40 years from now, I’ll be (Senate Finance Committee Chairman) Hugh Leatherman. That’s not why I ran.”

‘100 percent’

Harpootlian’s long game is to win a full term in 2020 and influence the debate as state lawmakers redraw district lines after the 2020 census results come in. If he can’t persuade the General Assembly to draw fair, compact districts, he says he will at least put his colleagues on the record showing the lines were illegally drawn by race or to protect incumbencies. That will become ammunition in a lawsuit to challenge the lines, he says.

Harpootlian says his Senate resume so far makes him “100 percent” certain he will win re-election in 2020, even though he represents a slightly red district where turnout in a presidential year likely will boost a GOP challenger.

Locals agree. Tom Gotshall, a Republican who lives in Columbia’s University Hill neighborhood, said his GOP friends likely will support Harpootlian next year after the Democrat’s scrutiny of local boards and the Panthers deal.

“He’s made a marvelous contribution his first year,” Gotshall said. “He’s raising issues that all of us can get behind that make government better.”

In an April piece for the conservative Wall Street Journal, former Gov. Mark Sanford speechwriter Barton Swaim dubbed Harpootlian “South Carolina’s unlikely crusader for good government.”

And the Republican with the best chance of defeating him — state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland — told The State this week he will not run for the seat next year.

“Harpootlian has ticked off everybody at the city level, the county level, Senate, House, and a bunch of bureaucrats,” Ballentine said. “So he must be doing something right.”

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.

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